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Use Medicines Safely

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Publication Number: IS1521
View as PDF: IS1521.pdf

Medicines can cure an illness, reduce the risk of sick- ness, or help you cope with a long-term disease. But they can also cause serious problems if you take them incor- rectly. Mistakes with medicines happen when people don’t understand why, how, and when to take them.

There are two kinds of medicines: those you buy over the counter without seeing a doctor and those a doctor must prescribe. Both kinds can be strong. Find out about any medicine before you take it.


Inform Your Doctor and Pharmacist

Always talk to your doctor and pharmacist about yourmedicines. This information will help them treat you:

Tell them...

  • If you are allergic to any medications or have had an un-usual reaction to any medication, food, or other substance
  • If you are taking any other medications, includingover-the-counter, herbal substances, vitamins, andminerals.
  • If you are pregnant, think you might be pregnant, oryou are planning to become pregnant.
  • If you are breastfeeding.
  • If you are following a special diet.
  • If you have problems taking any medications.
  • If you have any other medical problems besides the one(s)for which this medication is prescribed (Why? Because ofpossible drug interactions and possible side effects).

Ask Questions

Your doctor, nurse, and pharmacist are responsiblefor helping you understand prescription medicines wellenough to take them safely. But you are responsible forlearning what you need to know about any medicationyou will take or will give to a family member. Find outthis information before you leave the health clinic or phar-macy by asking as many questions as you need to. If theiranswers are vague or you still don’t understand, find aprofessional who can help answer them.

Ask your doctor and pharmacist these questions about your medicines:

  • What is the name of the medicine, and how will it help me?
  • How soon can I expect it to work?
  • Is there another treatment for my problem instead of amedicine?
  • What will happen if I don’t take this medicine
  • How do I take this medicine—with food or on anempty stomach?
  • How often do I take it (how many times a day) and for how long
  • What foods, drinks, other medicines, or activities should I avoid while taking this medicine?
  • Are there any side effects, and what do I do if they occur?


Report Reactions

Report to your doctor how the medicine is working.Some medicines may cause problems, even if you takethem the right way. Call the doctor if you think any medi-cine is making you feel worse. Report any new symptomsto your doctor. If you develop a rash or shortness of breathwhile taking a medicine, especially an antibiotic, do not take the next dose until you have talked with a doctor.

Ask questions to find out what effect foods and othermedicines might have on a new medicine. Some foods anddrinks can make the medicine work too fast or too slowlyor even not at all. Other foods and medicines may cause alife-threatening reaction. Alcohol can be very dangerous when taken with some medicines.

Here are some examples of medications and foods that react with each other:

  • MAO inhibitors* and aged or fermented foods
  • Tetracycline and milk products
  • Natural licorice and high blood pressure medicine
  • Coumadin and liver or green, leafy vegetables (foods containing Vitamin K).

Regular use of medicines such as mineral oil, diuretics or water pills, birth control pills, and antacids can cause nutritional deficiencies over a period of time. Your doctor needs to know you are taking these medicines so imbal- ances can be detected.

*MAO inhibitors, commonly called MAOIs, are a type of anti- depressant used to treat some types of mental depression. Not all antidepressants are MAO inhibitors.


Avoid Common Mistakes

If you don’t understand the answers your doctor andpharmacist give you, ask them to explain again. Get writ-ten information or take notes. More people over age 65 areadmitted to the hospital for medicine problems than forany other reason. And those under age 65 have some of thesame problems. Studies have shown that half of all pre- scriptions are taken incorrectly.

Here is some advice for taking medications safely:

  • Keep a list of all your medications and their dosages.
  • Some medications require you to wear a medicalidentification bracelet, such as insulin and Coumadin(a blood thinner). It is important to do so in case of amedical emergency.
  • Take your medications exactly as they are prescribedby your doctor, including the number of times per dayand for the length of time indicated (for instance, 10 or14 days).
  • Do not stop taking your medications without discuss-ing it with your doctor. Stopping your medicationsearly can result in unsuccessful treatment or make itmore difficult to treat in the future.
  • Follow the label instructions as far as taking the medi-cation with food or on an empty stomach. Read theprecautions carefully.
  • Ask the pharmacist or doctor if there are any foods toavoid while you are on the medication, including alcohol.
  • If you are taking the medication with water, make sureyou drink a full 8 ounces of water and not just a fewsips. Some medications are extremely irritating to thethroat, esophagus, and stomach.
  • Do not take a double dose of the medication.
  • If you experience any unusual side effects, contactyour doctor immediately.
  • Do not share your medication with others.
  • Check with your pharmacist or doctor regarding anypossible drug interactions.


Sunburn and Sun Sensitivity

Many drugs can increase your risk of sunburn whenyou are exposed to sunlight or to a sun lamp. If you takea drug with a precaution of sun sensitivity, follow theseguidelines:

  • Avoid prolonged periods in the sun, even with a sunumbrella.
  • Protect your skin with clothing, and wear a hat.
  • Use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15or higher on all exposed areas, and apply it often.


Travel Guidelines

Keep your medications in their original containers withyou in your carry-on luggage, in case your plane is delayedor your luggage is lost. Also, in case of an unexpectedchange in travel plans, take extra medications with you.


Remember These Lifesavers

You and your doctor together make the best decisionsabout medicines. Some of these discussions can be real life-savers! Here are some lifesaving guidelines:• Take all of your medicines or a list of them to yourdoctor and pharmacist for review every time you visitthe clinic or pharmacy.• Report regularly to your doctor the effects of the medi-cines you take.• Don’t take any medicine unless you are sure it is necessary.• Assume any new symptom you develop after startinga new medicine is caused by the medicine.• When a specialist wants you to start a new medicine,get your primary doctor’s okay.


Take Safety Precautions

Keep safety precautions in mind when buying, using,and storing medicines. Take the opportunity to teach children about using medicines safely.

  • When you buy medicine, check it at the store to makesure no one else has opened it.
  • Check to see if the medicine looks normal and likewhat you expected. If you think it looks old or doesnot look like you expected, ask the pharmacist to double check it. You might ask, “Is this Capoten for highblood pressure?
  • Never take anyone else’s prescription medicine, andflush any unused medicine down the toilet.
  • Keep all medications out of reach of children—lockedup, if possible. Very often, grandparents’ homes arethe place where children are poisoned with medicines. Post the number of the regional poison control centernext to the phone, and keep ipecac syrup (to inducevomiting) on hand for use if advised.
  • Teach all children about medicine, and call it “medicine,”not “candy” or “drugs.” Explain that medicine can helpmake them well if they are sick but can be very danger-ous, like poison, if taken the wrong way. Talk about thedifference between medicine and illegal drugs.

Information Sheet 1521 (POD-03-17)

Revised by David Buys, PhD, MSPH, Extension State Health Specialist, Food Science, Nutrition, and Health Promotion.


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